James (Jim) Donahue Burke, 1925–2023

Jim Burke

James (Jim) Burke, an American lunar settlement and exploration expert and one of the pioneers of America’s space program, passed away on August 19, 2023, at the age of 97.

Burke was born in Los Angeles County on September 18, 1925. He grew up in Claremont, California, and graduated from Webb High School in 1942. In 1945, after graduating in mechanical engineering from California Institute of Technology (Caltech), he became a U.S. naval aviator. Burke returned to Caltech to receive his master’s degree in aeronautics before joining the staff of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in 1949.

During his tenure at JPL, Burke was the director of the Vega program, developing the third stage of the general-purpose Vega launch vehicle, which was based on the Atlas rocket. Following the transfer of JPL from the U.S. Navy to NASA as well as reorganization during the early 1960s, the Lunar and Planetary Program was created. Burke was named deputy director of this program.

Burke was also named as the first program manager of the Ranger program, a series of unmanned space missions by the U.S. in the 1960s whose objective was to obtain the first close-up images of the surface of the Moon. The Ranger spacecraft were designed to take images of the lunar surface, transmitting those images to Earth until the spacecraft were destroyed upon impact. Burke was in charge of spacecraft design, the deep space tracking and control network, space flight operations, and data reduction support systems, while the Space Science Division was in charge of the scientific experiments. Burke had the unique ability to combine technological and theoretical ideas to integrate mechanical and electrical features to achieve difficult technical objectives. Along with his associates, Burke solved the major guidance problem associated with solid-propellant ballistic missiles — velocity control. He was recognized as one of the laboratory’s most perceptive research engineers.

Burke participated in many other lunar, planetary, and astrophysical projects. He was a member of the human-powered flight team that won the prestigious Kremer prize. He continued to work at JPL until his retirement in 2001. Minor planet 4874 Burke, discovered by Eleanor Helin, was named after him when he retired from JPL.

— Portions of text courtesy of the NASA History Office